Monday, April 27, 2009

For a Song: Lather

Jefferson Airplane: Lather


Over at Star Maker Machine, we just completed a week of songs about drugs. This got me thinking about how alien the 60s must seem to someone born to a later generation.

The hippies of the 60s believed that they represented a sharp break from everything that preceded them. The term “generation gap” comes from this time. And the age of thirty was thought to be a sharp line between the generations. Somehow, once you turned thirty, you became part of “the establishment”, and were not to be trusted.

So here is Lather on his thirtieth birthday. The establishment, represented here by his parents, expect Lather to magically become a different person, and embrace establishment values. He could become a banker or a military officer, as did his friends before him. But Lather is perhaps the ultimate counterculture hero; he refuses to give up his innocence. By retaining his childish nature, from the hippie perspective, Lather remains part of the solution, instead of becoming part of the problem.

Now, the members of the Jefferson Airplane are themselves well past thirty. They are the same people they were before, only older. Musically, they did sell out eventually, recording We Built This City as Jefferson Starship. And some hippies did become bankers and military officers and so on. But some hippies started music labels, and supported new musicians whose dreams, perhaps, reminded them of their own. And some have continued to make the music of their hearts, even as the marketplace passed them by. And some, it should be said, were consumed by the drugs that were so much a part of their youthful experience. So I would say that Lather lives on, not as a cultural movement, but as an inspiration to individuals. Time has mixed the message somewhat, but the dream still lives.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra - self titled


The first time I listened to the self-titled album by Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra, I imagined a Broadway show. In the show, a young man born in New Orleans comes to New York City. Through various trials and tribulations, he is encouraged, chastised, and set back upon the course by a Greek chorus of Mardi Gras Indians, sometimes ghostly in appearance, who represent his roots. The show concludes with the young man, not so young any more, returning to New Orleans to live out his life and die. That may sound like a downer of an ending, but remember that a New Orleans funeral is a joyous occasion, a celebration of a life well lived, and so it is here. The finale is the song, Bury Me in New Orleans, heard here.

This album, however, is not that show. But this is big music, and it would sound right at home in a Broadway musical, one I would love to see. This is rhythm and blues music, in the best sense. There is a core band of six musicians here, plus four horn players, plus four background singers. There is piano work reminiscent of Professor Longhair, gospelish vocal arrangements, a tight/loose rhythm section in that way that is unique to New Orleans, a church-like organ in places. And Brother Joscephus has the vocal chops to pull this off. It takes a powerful voice, that can express a range of emotions over full arrangements without ever forcing it, and Joscephus passes every test.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of all this is the fact that this is a debut album. This is a large band, with complex arrangements, and they mostly get it right on the first try. All of the musicians have something to do in every song, but there are stretches where some, or even most, of the musicians sit out, waiting for when the are needed, and their entrances are all the more powerful for it. I have often heard that one of the hardest things for a young musician to do is not play, but here the arrangements do not accommodate such youthful impatience. Another marvel is the fact that a band this large creates such an intimate sound on some of tunes. Both Can’t Help Myself and I Won’t Be That Man include the full band, but make quiet personal statements.

The album begins on a high note. A Child Shall Lead is a joyous and riotous expression of faith, although not the one the listener expects. Joscephus catalogs some of the troubles of the world, and says, “Don’t try to tell me that she’s born with sin/ Her smile could teach this world how to love again/ And a child shall lead the way.” This is the faith of a man who has just beheld the miracle of the birth of his first child. There is nothing religious about it, although it is a profound feeling, to be sure.

From there, faith and love wax and wane throughout the album. The two songs about New Orleans, Bury Me in New Orleans and Bon Temps Roulez, both have a spiritual dimension to them; they are as a much about a state of mind as they are about a physical place. O Moses is a plea for help during a crisis of faith. And the songs about relationships find the narrator offering or needing encouragement. So lyrically, Don’t Give Up On Love is a fitting way to close the album.

This is a debut album, after all. So there are a couple of things to improve upon in the future. Midnight Moon is a wonderful tune with a Tin Pan Alley feel to it. But it doesn’t fit musically with what has gone before. It sounds like it belongs on a different album, one I would love to have as well. Immediately following Midnight Moon, Don’t Give Up On Love closes the album. This is a well crafted tune, but after what has come before, it does not seem to match the energy and intensity of the earlier tracks. So, for me at least, the album ends on a bit of a down note.

So Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra come roaring out of the gate with a strong debut. They set a very high standard for themselves, which they maintain almost to the end of the album. I know I will be eager to hear more from these guys in the future.

Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra: A Child Shall Lead

Brother Joscephus and the Love Revival Revolution Orchestra: Bury Me In New Orleans

Listen to more songs by Brother Joscephus here.

Friday, April 17, 2009


I would to apologize to all recent visitors who have been unable to listen to the music here. My file hosting service has been undergoing a service outage this week. The songs will, hopefully, be back soon, along with new material. Thank you all for your interest, and your patience.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Our Evolutionary Cousins

Charles Darwin was famous for letting us all know that we used to be monkeys. Fortunately, we have made great strides since then.

Willie Dixon: Signifying Monkey


Consider Willie Dixon’s tale of monkey behavior. The monkey is devious and manipulative, and has no conscience. Both the lion and the elephant are his unwitting tools.

Willie Dixon was the bass player in Muddy Waters’ greatest band. His playing can be heard on many of the classic Chicago blues songs of the 50s, and many of the best known songs from that scene were Dixon’s compositions.

Los Lobos: Wanna Be Just Like You (The Monkey Song)


And, as Los Lobos tells us here, even the more self-aware monkeys yearn to improve themselves by becoming human.

Los Lobos needs no introduction. This track comes from a collection of covers of Disney tunes, called Stay Awake. The original version is from The Jungle Book.

Toots and the Maytals: Monkey Man


Perhaps, some monkeys have even made the attempt. That would explain the strange creature that Toots and the Maytals encounter here.

Toots and the Maytals’ best known song, Pressure Drop, is a classic reggae tune. Monkey Man is considered a ska classic, and has been covered by The Specials and Reel Big Fish, among others.

Nil Lara: Money Makes the Monkey Dance


Of course, Nil Lara reminds us that the love of money can make a monkey out of any of us.

Nil Lara’s family are originally from Cuba, he was born in the United States, and Lara grew up in Venezuela. This background helps to explain why Lara sounds like nobody else.

Irene Reid: One Monkey Don‘t Stop No Show


And, as far as Irene Reid was concerned, any man who mistreated her was a monkey.

Irene Reid was a fine jazz singer, with great musical timing, but, outside of music, she never seemed to get anywhere at the right time. She joined Count Basie’s band in 1961. Later, she joined the Broadway cast of The Wiz in plenty of time to assure that she wasn’t on the cast album. But she never lacked talent. In the last few years of her life, Reid released six albums as a group leader. This song comes from one of those.

So maybe we haven’t evolved as far as we would like to believe.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

David Wilcox - Open Hand


“... If I spoke as loud as rolling thunder
Another war could start
So I speak in silent sacred wonder
Straight into the heart”
-from Vow of Silence

Although David Wilcox was talking about something else, I can’t think of a better description of his singing and his overall approach to making music. Wilcox is a master of subtlety who gives each song exactly what it needs. And his work has all the more emotional resonance because of this.

Open Hand, after all these years, is Wilcox’ first album on his own label. So it sounds just the way he wants. There is a contrast between the slower, mostly acoustic numbers, and the up tempo numbers, which tend to have arrangements that are closer to rock. But, throughout, Wilcox’ acoustic guitar is the featured instrument. He uses a variety of tunings, and the guitar usually sets up the rhythm of the song as well. He is not flashy, but Wilcox can get a full range of moods from his playing. Wilcox is supported by electric or stand-up bass, drums on some tracks, and mostly subtle electric guitar and keyboard parts. That strange sound you here on the chorus of Modern World is a musical saw.

Wilcox has a very smooth singing voice, which he is able to modulate to serve the song. So while he sings most of the songs here in the high end of his vocal range, (but without ever forcing it), for How Long he uses the lower end of his range to powerful effect. And, while most of the vocals use what singers call a head voice, what tends to kind of float, for Captain Wanker, Wilcox uses his chest voice, which produces a deeper, more grounded effect.

Open Hand is collection of songs which express a tension between hope and despair. Most of the darkest songs here include at least a faint ray of hope. And most of the brightest songs convey a sense of fragility, a sense that this could all be gone in an instant. And, as the brief example above shows, Wilcox is a poet. He is able to come up with bizarre metaphors, and get them to sound completely normal. In Outside Door, Wilcox places his character in an abandoned movie theater, where, for the character alone, the same movie plays over and over. This represents the fact that the character is emotionally stuck, but he finds an exit in the end, and rejoins the world. In Not From Here, Wilcox portrays a woman whose innocence and ability to see the world with fresh eyes makes her seem unearthly to the man who loves her; in the song, he characterizes her as actually being from another planet. This may not sound like a promising idea for a song, but Wilcox is able to turn it into one of the most beautiful love songs I have ever heard.

Wilcox also addresses the state of the world in a few places. He avoids stridency by personalizing his statements: he uses the viewpoint of a man in the Carolinas to talk about the economy in Dream Again, and creates a conversation between his narrator and Jesus to comment on religious hypocrisy in Beyond Belief.

Only one song misses the mark for me: Captain Wanker is just too self-pitying. But David Wilcox has set the bar quite high with his body of previous work, and that is what makes his rare misses so disappointing. Over all, if this is what Wilcox sounds like when he has complete artistic control, I look forward to hearing more.

David Wilcox: Not From Here

David Wilcox: Outside Door

Thursday, April 9, 2009

For a Song: Mulu The Rain Forest

Thomas Dolby: Mulu The Rain Forest


Synth-pop was a 19080s offshoot of new wave music which entailed one or two musicians “playing” programmed keyboards and singing. The results often sounded robotic, (which was sometimes exactly the point). The sounds in this music were artificial and sterile, expressing alienation in a new way. The ideas were interesting for a while, but to me this music got boring after a while.

Thomas Dolby burst onto the scene with She Blinded Me With Science, and his music was immediately labeled synth-pop. But Dolby was doing something else. He used synthesizers, yes, but in combination with instruments like electric guitar and actual drums, as opposed to drum machines. And Dolby never wanted his music to sound chilly or alienated. Rather, Dolby was interested in exploring different music textures.

With the release of Dolby’s second album, The Flat Earth, this became clearer. The Flat Earth is all about musical textures and words that follow from the sound. The album starts and finishes with the two singles, Dissidents and Hyperactive. But in between, Dolby takes on a journey to the land of dreams and back again. The destination of this journey is Mulu The Rain Forest. Here, the listener is in some aboriginal dreamtime. The lyrics are simple, but they are almost beside the point. The vocal is just one more sound that transports us into the dream. The rhythm and the melody both splinter and regroup throughout the song. Finally the dream ends, and the rest of the album wakes us, refreshed, and perhaps wiser to the mysteries.

I don’t know what I have personally learned from this. But The Flat Earth is an album I never tire of going back to. And, for me, Mulu The Rain Forest is the centerpiece of the album.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Corners of the World: Klezmer

Corners of the World is going to be an occasional feature here, focusing on world music. This is really the second post in the series, the first being my post on Scottish folk music.

Let me wish a happy Passover to all. As you know, the story of Passover is the story of how the Jewish people escaped their bondage to the pharoah in Egypt. But the story does not end there. The Jewish people wandered in the desert for forty years, before they found their home. This wandering may serve as a metaphor for the story of Klezmer music.

In the old country, klezmer was the music of the eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jews. Their language was Yiddish. Klezmer was played at celebrations, such as weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs. It was played traveling musicians, who were influenced by the cultures of the countries they lived in. Jewish settlements, or shtetls, were small, and one shtetl could not provide enough work for one klezmer band.

When the Ashkenazi Jews emigrated to the United States, they brought their culture with them. New York City, by the beginning of the twentieth century, had a large enough Jewish population that there soon developed a Yiddish theater, and daily newspaper in Yiddish, and many occasions that required the services of Klezmer musicians.

In 1921, David Tarras emigrated to New York City. Tarras was born in the Ukraine, where he first played Klezmer in his father’s band. Tarras, a clarinet player, was unusual among the Klezmer musicians in New York, because he could read and write music. This made it easier for Tarras to find work as a musician and, especially as a recording artist.

The Jews adapted to life as Americans and became assimilated. The quality of their lives improved, but the traditions faded. Each successive generation knew less Yiddish than the prior one. The Yiddish theater closed; the newspaper ceased publication. And there were fewer and fewer places for Klezmer musicians to play, so fewer and fewer took up the music. By the 1950s, Tarras was a nostalgia act, remembered only by old people. Klezmer began its time in the desert.

By the late 1970s, Klezmer was all but forgotten. But there was a movement among Jews to rediscover their heritage. And some of these were musicians. One, Frank London, was a jazz musician who was amazed to discover that there was “interesting” Jewish music. In college, he came across old recordings by David Tarras and his contemporaries, and he was fascinated. London became a founding member of the Klezmer Conservatory Orchestra, and the Klezmer revival was born.

The Klezmatics: Tiseveles Bulgar


In 1986, London struck again. He found a group of Jewish musicians with varied musical backgrounds, and together they became the Klezmatics. The Klezmatics pay tribute to the original sources of the music; Tiseveles Bulgar was written by David Tarras. But they also allow Klezmer to grow, blending influences from other kinds of music. Remember, this is exactly what the Klezmer musicians did in the old country.

Frank London‘s Klezmer Brass Allstars: Our Ancestors Forty Thousand Years Wide


Frank London continues to stretch the boundaries of Klezmer even now, both with the Klezmatics and on his own. Here, London explores the possibilities of a Klezmer brass band.

Itzhak Perlman w/ The Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra: Khaiterma


Andy Statman began his musical career as a folk mandolin player. Since he began to explore his Jewish musical roots, Statman has also become a fine clarinet player. When Itzhak Perlman, the renowned classical violinist began his own exploration years later, Statman was one of the musicians he sought out to help him.

The Burning Bush: Fun Tashlach


The Klezmer revival was born in the United States, but nowadays the music can be found in many countries, and is played by both Jewish and non-Jewish musicians. The Burning Bush are a British group that plays both Klezmer and the music of the Sephardic Jews, those who settled in Spain, parts of northern Africa, and eventually the Middle East. Fun Tashlach is a traditional klezmer tune.

Di Naye Kapelye: Baj Van Medley

[purchase. This album is not available on Amazon‘s US site. I have provided a link to a German vendor. Pricing is in Euros.]

Today, Klezmer music has come full circle. As it turns out, there are still old gypsy and Jewish musicians in eastern Europe who remember Klezmer music from their youth, and have kept the traditions barely alive. The members of Di Naya Kapelye, (Yiddish for “The New Band”), have sought these people out, and learned the music from them. So now, the joyous sound of Klezmer can once again be heard in the lands where it was born.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Mary Bragg - Sugar


The album is called Sugar. It comes from a line in the song Sweet Skin. But Sugar could just as easily refer to the sweetness of Mary Bragg’s voice. She reminds me of Alison Krauss. Sugar could also refer to love. Give the album a casual listen, and you will here the word love a lot. You will also hear the kinds of melodies that often carry love songs to the top of the pop charts.

But you won’t hear pop arrangements, with swelling strings and oversinging. Bragg gives the songs what they need, and the emotion comes through loud and clear. For strings, she uses one violin and one cello, and not always on the same song. There is electric or stand-up bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, some pedal steel, and keyboards. These are used in various combinations, but always in a way that supports Bragg’s voice. Some songs are sweet, acoustic, country-tinged ballads, while others rock out. And Bragg can adjust her vocals to handle it all.

So here, on the surface, is an album of love songs. But it’s not quite that simple. Give a closer listen to the words. Yes, you will find that Bragg is a romantic soul, believing sincerely in the power of love. But you will also find that that love faces sometimes severe tests. I Will Love You sounds like an innocent enough title, but the song tells of a woman whose love survives, despite the suicide of its object. Child tells of a woman’s love for her child in the face of a vicious custody battle. And Sweet Skin is a song of jealousy. Bragg sings all of this in the first person, and I became worried about her. This is too much for any one woman to bear. And I realized that Bragg and her cowriters had accomplished something rare: they had made me care what happened to these women. Fortunately, a line in Bragg’s dedications in the liner notes put my mind somewhat at ease. Bragg says, “To those whose heartache has fueled my inspiration, I hope these songs bring you the peaceful resolution you crave and deserve.” I wouldn’t normally quote from an artist’s dedications at all, but I thought that bore repeating.

There is something of an arc to these songs. Let Me opens the album at the beginning of a relationship, full of optimism. Things go wrong over the next few songs. The Paper Chase comes in the middle, and provides a break. It is not about relationships at all: rather, it is an almost-satire of corporate politics. Musically, the song is a kick, with a jazzy feel. And I love the way Bragg delivers the line, “sumptuous lobster croquettes”. I know that sounds strange, but you need to hear it. Following The Paper Chase, there are three songs that offer a hope of renewal, culminating with So Happy. Here is the flush of first love that comes with a new relationship. And here is the promise that, this time, things will be different, better.

For me, that should have been the end of the album. I badly wanted the happy ending. But, there is one more song. Trying is a nearly despairing tale of a poor couple who are reduced to begging in order to survive. The song is very effective, but I felt like my happy ending had been yanked away. Trying should have been placed in the first half of the album.

I have one other quibble. All through the album, Bragg has taken us inside these women, and told us of the love a woman has for a man and what becomes of it. Then comes Give That Girl. The song is in second person, so we are suddenly outside observers. And the singer says to a man who is neglecting his female lover, “Give that girl to me.” So, is Bragg portraying a male character here? Or, perhaps, a homo- or bi- sexual woman? The affect is somewhat jarring. I like the song, but I found it disorienting.

All told, though, I am impressed. I hope Mary Bragg is working on something new, and I hope she’ll think of me when it’s ready.

Mary Bragg: Sweet Skin

Mary Bragg: I Will Love You

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

For a Song: “The Hick-it Song”

I hope to make For a Song a regular feature here. Each post will explain the significance of one song in my life.

The story behind today’s song is true. But it still seemed like a good story to share on April 1. And just to make it more fun, I have left the name and artist out. As you read the story, you’ll see why.

My son is five years old now, but this happened a couple of years ago. My wife and I do most of our music listening in the car. And for this purpose, I have made up sampler discs of various musical genres. When we have the kids in the car with us, we play these samplers if they let us, but we have also put together a collection of kid’s music CDs that are still tolerable to listen to if one happens to be an adult.

One day, the whole family got in the car, and my son immediately demanded to hear “The Hick-it Song”. None of us ever heard of it, but my son makes up his own titles for songs all the time. So, we had a challenge on our hands. What was “The Hick-it Song”? For the following week, we worked our way through our entire collection of Kid’s CDs, asking my son, “Did you mean this? Did you mean this?” No luck. And he grew more and more upset. What could it be? Then, one day I thought to myself, Hick-it, that sounds like something I’ve heard somewhere... When I figured out what type of music went hick-it, I told my wife. She immediately figured out what song it must be. She was right, and “The Hick-it Song” is still a favorite with the whole family.

Mystery Artist: “The Hick-it Song“